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Higher aspirations

Students say career horizons elevated by engineering master’s and doctoral degrees

Above: Francisco Brown-Muñoz at the fall 2018 Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Convocation ceremony, where he received his diploma for earning a master’s degree in chemical engineering. He foresees the advanced degree opening opportunities for rising into leadership positions during his career. Photographer: Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

Francisco Brown-Muñoz foresees richer career opportunities opening up for himself because of the advanced skills he has acquired by delving into the more complex challenges of his technological discipline.

Phillip Miller is enjoying “the deep dive” into his area of expertise, anticipating it will enable him to “become one of the real contributors” to creativity and innovation.

And Kristen Jaskie is now where she has long hoped to be — “doing something I am passionate about and preparing to have a meaningful job at the cutting edge of my field that will benefit people,” she says.

photo of man holding a child

Phillip Miller, with one of his children, says graduate school is where students move beyond basic training for a profession into a higher level of expertise that enables them to become innovators in their fields. Photo courtesy of Phillip Miller

What do Brown-Muñoz, Miller and Jaskie have in common? They have all either recently completed or are undertaking graduate studies in Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

Various motivations drive decisions to go to graduate school, as well as individuals’ different perspectives on the value they see in investing their time in the all-consuming efforts it often requires to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in engineering.

But for these students and graduates, the Fulton Schools offered the resources and community they needed to explore intellectual curiosities, create potential for career advancement and achieve personal education goals.

Brown-Muñoz recently earned a master’s degree in chemical engineering — with a focus on environmental biotechnology — and will soon begin work in an environmental engineering position with a multinational engineering consulting firm. He’ll help to analyze data and develop statistical models and strategies for effective cleanup of contaminated sites.

His long-range goals include not only achievements as an engineer, but rising into management, corporate leadership and industry consultant positions, roles for which “bachelor’s degrees are sometimes not enough,” he says.

So, if he finds even more advanced knowledge is necessary to boost his career to those heights, Brown-Muñoz says he will seriously consider doctoral studies.

His role models for success are his parents, both of whom hold doctoral degrees in materials science.

“Undergraduate years are about an introduction to your field and getting the basic training and preparation for a job,” Miller says. “Graduate school is where you do the deep learning and the advanced research to gain the higher levels of expertise you need to create new knowledge and have a real impact on your field.”

While pursuing a master’s degree in electrical engineering, Miller, a U.S. Air Force veteran and father of three young children, has worked in research and development for Intel, where he has noticed “all the people who are in senior technology positions have graduate degrees.”

With a family and a job, Miller appreciates the online options and the schedule flexibility the Fulton Schools graduate programs offer. Because of such accommodations he is considering going beyond his initial goal of earning a master’s degree to pursue a doctoral degree. 

portrait of Kristen Jaskie outdoors

Electrical engineering doctoral student Kristen Jaskie says the research she is doing in the Sensor, Signal and Information Processing industry consortium at ASU is preparing her for a career developing engineering solutions that will protect and improve peoples’ lives. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Jaskie grew up with a father who earned a doctoral degree in physics and a mother with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. Both worked for Motorola, a major multinational telecommunications technology company.

“They loved what they did. There were always talking about the cool things they were working on,” Jaskie says. “That vibe I got from their excitement made me want to do something I love.”

She earned a master’s degree in computer science in 2011, which led her to become chair of a community college computer science department. But after seven years, she felt it wasn’t enough to fulfill her aspirations.

Through a colleague, Jaskie had met and talked to Fulton Schools Professor Andreas Spanias about the Sensor, Signal and Information Processing industry consortium (called SenSIP) he directs at ASU, and the opportunity to join the consortium’s research team Spanias offered her was among the reasons she decided to seek her doctoral degree at ASU.

Jaskie is currently on track to earn a doctoral degree in electrical engineering and is applying her growing knowledge of artificial intelligence and machine learning to her research for SenSIP.

What is coming out of the research promises to have useful applications in national defense, public safety, health care and energy security. Jaskie’s work focuses on compiling and supplying the kinds of data, analysis and forecasting to aid leaders in all of those fields.

“I want a career doing things that are going to save lives,” Jaskie says, “and this research can solve the kinds of problems that pose threats to people and society.”

Continuing her college education has been a challenge. Jaskie’s husband, a U.S. Navy veteran, is also a student in the Fulton Schools, using support from the GI Bill to earn a bachelor’s degree in the computer science program as the two of them raise four sons.

With both of them in school, they have to keep a close watch on the family budget these days, but Jaskie is confident the future holds economic opportunity for two people with degrees in increasingly critical branches of engineering.

“I have no doubts I am 100% in the right place now,” she says.

More than work

Others see similar advantages in reaching the upper echelons of higher education.

Kendalyn Grant graduated from ASU in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and went straight into a job at the Arizona Public Service utility company’s Palo Verde Generating Station, where she has been training to take on duties in various aspects of nuclear energy engineering and facilities management.

portrait of Matthew Davis

Job and career opportunities can expand with the advanced knowledge and research experience students get in graduate programs, says Matthew Davis, who is studying to earn a master’s degree in computer science.

Still, her goals for the future include returning to the Fulton Schools to earn a graduate degree to broaden her career horizons — possibly in optical science and engineering or environmental engineering.

“I’ve always strived to gain as much knowledge as possible, and I’m excited about continuing to learn more, delve deeper and specialize in particular subject matter,” Grant says.

“My plan right now focuses on earning a master’s degree, but I have not ruled out studying for a doctoral degree,” she adds.

Matthew Davis expects to complete a master’s degree in computer science with a focus on data mining and machine learning later this year.

Graduates in computer science and other science, technology and engineering fields are in demand, but the level and range of skills many leading employers want “pretty much require a graduate degree,” he says.

“There is vast potential to get lucrative jobs in a big range of industries. Every kind of business is using more data science,” Davis says. “So, if you can raise your level of knowledge, experience and competence, there are so many more options open to you.”

His experiences in the Fulton Schools have confirmed his early impressions of engineering studies at ASU, which led him to journey from his home in Idaho to attend college in Arizona.

“It felt like the people here really wanted me to learn and succeed,” he says.

Preyaporn Kris Phataraphruk feels the same way about her experiences in the Fulton Schools as she’s pursuing a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering.

She’s being challenged to be “a self-starter and develop a strong work ethic,” she says.

“I have learned that research takes great patience, time and a ton of hard work, and that sometimes things do not work out the way you had hoped,” Phataraphruk says. “You have to be adaptive to be a good problem-solver.”

man and wife holding two small children

Travis Skinner, with his family, began studies in a mechanical engineering master’s degree program but decided to take the leap into a more advanced program, lured by the more intriguing research he saw doctoral students conducting. Photo courtesy of Travis Skinner

It’s been especially rewarding, she says, “when I use my skills and figure something out. It’s like, ‘Wow, I was actually able to make something work.’ I feel this ability gives me great flexibility in my career opportunities.”

But the payoff for her doctoral studies is about more than a high-paying job. 

“I really want to make an impact. That’s my motivation,” Phataraphruk says. “Being able to help people is the big thing.”

Transforming the Fulton Schools experience

Travis Skinner initially signed on to the Fulton Schools 4+1 accelerated master’s degree program in mechanical engineering, but later switched to a doctoral degree program. The move was prompted by working on research projects with several engineering doctoral students.

“I was very impressed with their level of knowledge and the interesting projects they worked on, and I decided I would like to be on a comparable level,” Skinner says.

“After I finish my doctoral studies, I’ll be able to do research to solve complex problems on projects that likely wouldn’t be available to people with bachelor’s or even master’s degrees,” he says.

The demands of doctoral programs bring “times when things get tough, and I think there are easier things I could be doing,” Skinner says. “But then I learn something new or make a breakthrough and I remember how rewarding engineering can be.”

Luis Eguia says his undergraduate studies taught him about all the tools industrial engineers need, but felt he still lacked the knowledge of how to use them effectively. He went into a master’s degree program for the opportunity “to dig deeper into that toolbox.”

portrait of Luis Equia

Luis Eguia’s work toward a master’s degree in industrial engineering led to internships and later a full-time job with a major multinational company. Photo courtesy of Luis Eguia

Eguia says the skills he developed were critical in landing him two internships with W. L. Gore & Associates, a major multinational product developer and manufacturer, leading to a full-time job with the company after receiving his master’s degree in May 2018.

He is now also a part-time faculty associate in the Fulton Schools industrial engineering program. Still, a higher academic goal is on his mind.

“I want to spend some time in industry to understand how industrial engineers function in the outside world,” Eguia says. “That way, should the time come to earn a doctoral degree, I can bring more knowledge of industry best practices” into the endeavor.

The undergraduate research opportunities offered through the Fulton Schools enticed Fred Morstatter to pursue graduate school, a move that has resulted in a promising career start.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science, Morstatter says learning to do advanced research sounded “way more enticing than getting a job fixing bugs in computer software all day.”

Along the road to getting a doctoral degree in spring 2017, he experienced the thrill of “treading new territory, discovering new information and solving real-world problems. That’s the attraction. You get to move your field forward rather than just doing whatever has always been done.”

portrait of Jake Smithwick

The depth and range of expertise Jake Smithwick gained in earning three ASU graduate degrees — two of them in the Fulton Schools construction management program — are enabling him to have a career offering “the freedom to pursue your own interests.” He is now an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Photo courtesy of Jake Smithwick

Morstatter is now a computer scientist at the highly regarded Information Sciences Institute in the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering. There, he is applying his expertise to geopolitical forecasting — predicting trends and events in everything from government, economics and social movements, to computer hacking, natural disasters and environmental changes.

Jake Smithwick was an ASU student from 2002 to 2016, earning an undergraduate degree in computer information systems from the W. P. Carey School of Business, a Master of Public Administration from the School of Public Affairs, and ultimately, both master’s and doctoral degrees in the Fulton Schools construction management program in the Del E. Webb School of Construction

Smithwick’s varied pursuits have provided valuable insight that he now applies in his job as an assistant professor of engineering technology and construction management at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. 

Beyond “the wide variety of knowledge and research experience” acquired in graduate studies, Smithwick says, “you are also developing professional relationships with colleagues, research partners and industry contacts.”

The benefit of having such strong connections in one’s field, combined with a high level of academic and research achievement, is a solid foundation for establishing a career that “gives you the freedom to pursue your own interests,” and opportunities to find fulfillment by “doing the things you really want to do,” Smithwick says.

Kristen Hurtado has a similar message for anyone contemplating pursuing graduate education.

When she started college at ASU, Hurtado never imagined ending up with master’s and doctoral degrees in construction management from the Fulton Schools, plus a Master of Education in educational technology and instructional design — not to mention a graduate certificate in instructional design and education performance improvement — from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

portrait of Kristen Hurtado

Kristen Hurtado, a Fulton Schools assistant professor, says her multiple master’s and doctoral degrees have put her in a position to have a wide-ranging impact on the construction management industry.

“In one way or another, I use almost everything I’ve learned every day,” says Hurtado, who is an assistant professor of construction management in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the six Fulton Schools.

In addition to teaching courses and mentoring students, over the past eight years she has helped to guide more than 200 construction management projects for numerous public and private agencies, including Fortune 500 companies, federal and state agencies, universities and utilities.

Hurtado says her master’s degree in education helps her to be a valuable consultant, teacher and coach for clients and collaborators.

“If I had gone right into a job rather than getting the graduate degrees, and had worked for just one or two companies in the past several years, I wouldn’t be having the impact on the industry I am now,” she says.

Today, with the her name on a Fulton Schools doctoral degree diploma, “the organizations I am working with understand I am a professional researcher and that my expertise aligns with their needs to solve their biggest problems, and that brings our relationship up to a different level,” Hurtado says.

What’s ultimately the big payoff for her many years of graduate studies?

“It feels like I’m making a real difference,” she answers, “and that is very empowering.”

About The Author

Joe Kullman

Joe Kullman is a science writer for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Before joining Arizona State University in 2006, Joe worked as a reporter, writer and editor for newspapers and magazines dating back to the dawn of the age of the personal computer. He began his career while earning degrees in journalism and philosophy from Kent State University in Ohio. Media Contact: [email protected] | 480-965-8122 | Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Communications

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